Doing Good Business

Entry by: percypop

30th May 2017
Doing Good Business

“Mind the door,” said the shopkeeper as Jimmy pushed his way into the shop.The bag of clinking bottles banged against the counter.

“How many this time, you monkey?”

“Only a dozen, Mister Wright,” Jimmy smiled as he acknowledged the cheerful nickname.

“Now tell me how much you want.”

“That’s twelve at tuppence returns, so that’s two shillin’.”

Every few days the same exchange occurred. Jimmy collected the empty Corona lemonade bottles and claimed the “Return” from the shop.

Everyone in Barnsley knew Jimmy. When the war finished, the local authority had a problem finding a place for him. An orphan from the bombing, nine years old and small for his age, he was passed round the town several times. It was not deliberate cruelty, but the lack of resources; rationing and austerity made people turn away. He ended up in the children’s home, but they couldn’t keep track of his whereabouts and soon didn’t try. He became his own man and liked it that way.

He fingered the two silver coins lying heavily in his trouser pocket. It felt good. He went, into the fish bar and waited in line for his order of “penny crispings.” The warmth of the frying and the smell of fried fish gave a comfortable feel to the shop. He scooped the hot bits from the paper cone hungrily, as he sat on the kerb outside. He could hear the voices of people in the queue as they waited their turn.

“She’s a miserly old witch,” said one man, “I only asked her if she wanted her winders cleanin’ and she got huffy wi’me, the old hag!”
Jimmy guessed they were talking about the old lady at Number 24 – the house with the dirty windows and overgrown front garden.
Next day, he peered at number 24 as he went passed. It seemed as dark and blind as a mole. Ragged net curtains hung awry at the windows. He took a quick look down the side of the house to see if any bottles were there. It was dirty and smelled of cats.

“Get out of my garden!”

A shrill voice caught him by surprise and he ran back to the front of the house, tripping over himself as he reached the corner. On the step stood an old woman. She had a broom in her hand and held it like a weapon – two hands gripping the handle like a sword. She was thin and grey, dressed in a pinafore of the same colour. Her eyes were red-rimmed as if she cried a lot, but she gazed at him fiercely.

“I just wanted your empty bottles,” he realised this would not do. “I give ‘em to the shop regular.”
He could think of nothing better at short notice.
“What’s your name, boy?” she advanced towards him and he stepped back but she blocked his way to the street.
“Jimmy, Jimmy Fraser.”
“Where d’you live then?”
Jimmy guessed she wanted to report him or tell his parents and he quickly gained confidence since he knew nobody cared a jot about him.
“I live in the Home down Surrey Street.”

She stopped and put the broom down. He tried a grin to see if that would work but her expression hardly changed. Then she turned and climbed the front step. When she got to the top, she looked at him and said,

“Well? You better come in and look for yourself”

Jimmy looked past her through the open door. The hall was a dark cavern leading to a flight of stairs. There was a stale odour of old food and dust coming from the hallway.

“I’ll be going,” he said and began to make his way towards the street, not running but moving as quickly as he could. She called him back.
“Look! I got you some bottles anyway.” She held up three bottles of different sizes. He could see only one tupenny Corona bottle. He stepped up to her and took all three quickly as if she might snatch him with her withered hands like a witch in a storybook. She went back inside. As she closed the door she called out, “There’ll be more next week.”

He ran down Surrey Street towards the High Street and dumped two of the bottles in a bomb site. The Corona bottle he stashed in his secret hiding place where he collected his stock. He kept away from number 24 while doing his rounds for days, but something brought him back to the house the following week. Was it the mystery of the old house? Was it a dare he made with himself? Or something to do with the isolation which he shared with the old woman? He persuaded himself he might get more bottles to swap and pushed the question aside.

This time, he rang the bell. There was no answer. He rang again and heard the sound of shuffling feet approaching the door.
“Go away!” her voice was shrill but weak.
“I come for the bottles,” he said, “you told me to come back.”

The door opened and he could see the outline of her frail body against the gloom of the interior.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve got a few here and you can have them.”
She turned and he hesitated, then followed her inside. He did his best to ignore the stale smells. She went into the front room and sat down in a worn old chair and picked up a bag from beside the chair.

“Here you are,” and handed him the bag with four bottles in it.
“Them’s not all Corona,” he said, “I can’t swap ‘em if they’re not Corona.”

She smiled for the first time and nodded
“Well, that’s your job isn’t it? You’ve got to sort them yourself.” He agreed and then in a moment of silence, he looked round the room.

On a table beside the chair were two photos of a young man in Air Force uniform.
“Is that your family?” he said, filling the awkward silence.
“He was called Jimmy, like you, but he didn’t collect bottles!”
He picked up the bag and thanked her. She remained in the chair, as if the effort of getting up was too much, and he went out of the house and shut the door.

By the time Friday came round, the Warden discovered he’d only been to school that week on just two days.
“This has got to stop!”
The man bent down and stared at Jimmy but the boy looked away as if ignoring him.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy. You’ll stay in for the whole of the weekend – d’you hear? Now get out!”
Jimmy nodded and left the room.

Saturday came, the Warden went home and the staff slacked off. No one took the trouble to check on Jimmy, so by Sunday afternoon, he slipped out and took his collection to the shop.

“Well,” said Mister Wright, “you’re late this week. Has the town run dry?”
Jimmy smiled his best cheeky grin, and said, “I was a bit busy this week.” He counted the cash for the bottles and bought himself some biscuits from the Broken Biscuits Tin which were not on ration.

The next week was Wakes week and the town went mad. Parades and Union Rallies happened every day. Jimmy collected all sorts of bottles – beer bottles – cider bottles and, of course, plenty of Corona bottles. He collected his cash and forgot about number 24. It had been ten days since he last went there.

He ran up the steps and rang the bell. He rang again and heard the familiar slow steps approach the door. He called out: “It’s OK Missus, it’s Jimmy!”
She opened the door wide and he saw she had tears in her eyes.
“I thought you’d forgot me,” she said, “and I kept your bottles.”
She smiled and he realised he had never seen her smile before.
“Well it’s been Wakes week an’ I’ve been collecting all over,” he said.
“Tell me how many you got,” she said.

A strange feeling of pity for her came over him, as if he was her nurse or friend. He had never felt this before. He had found someone who needed him.
“Shall I come in then?” he asked, and she led the way into the back parlour where he had been before.
She sat in her old chair and he told her about the fair and the rallies that he’d seen that week. She gazed at him with close attention, her sad eyes wide with interest. When he finished, she pointed to the bag by her chair.
“I expect you don’t need these then,” she held out the bag to show three Corona bottles inside.
Jimmy grinned and said, “They’ll do! I can put them in the shop next week but not today, ‘cos he’s paid me already.”
She made a croaking sound and he realised she was laughing, it must have been something she’d not done for a long time.
“Well, will you be back next week?”
“Of course, this is my regular round now isn’t it?”
Again, he saw the glint of tear in her eye and he turned away embarrassed.

“Well, I’ll be off. See you next week.”
He skipped out of the room and down the steps.

The following week was wet and cold, a spiteful wind blew away the bunting and the flags left over from the carnival. People kept indoors and the town seemed to close down like a grey prison. Jimmy had money in his pocket and left his collecting alone for a while. He began again when the weather cleared and one of his first calls was at number 24. He rang the bell but there was no answer. He rang again and hammered on the door in case she was asleep, although it was late morning. Still no answer, so he went round the back, but the grimy windows and net curtains gave nothing away.

As he returned to the front, a postman was banging on the door.
“Do you know the woman?” he asked. “I’ve got a registered letter from the council. Has she gone away?”
Jimmy blurted out: “She never goes away – she never goes out.”
The man looked at him and muttered something Jimmy didn’t catch. Then he walked swiftly away.
“You stay here lad, we’ll be back in a minute.”
He reappeared with two other men, one a policeman. They peered through the letterbox and shouted, but there was just silence.
“Stand back, son,” said the policeman, and he ran at the door and gave a mighty kick. A panel of the door gave way with a splintering crack. He put his hand inside and released the lock. The hall floor was littered with circulars and a few papers but the house was silent. The door to the parlour was open and the three men stepped into the room. Jimmy followed knowing that something must be amiss.
“You stay outside,” said the postman, but Jimmy could see into the room and the figure of the woman lying on the floor. She was curled up as if asleep but he knew she was dead. Her face seemed younger than he recalled, as if she was at peace at last.
In her hand was a crumpled note.
“What’s all this?” said the policeman, and he pointed to the floor.
Twenty empty Corona bottled stood in a row around the old chair. In the neck of each bottle was a pound note neatly rolled.
He took the paper from her stiff fingers and read aloud, “For Jimmy.”
He turned to the others. “Who’s Jimmy?”
For the first time, Jimmy felt a strange, painful pricking in his eyes. He realised he was crying.
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